Restaurant Review: UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge

A unified kitchen is turning out food that's better than ever.

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

The Monday Club BarThe Monday Club Bar, on the first floor of the restaurant, has a whimsical ambiance. (Photos by Ekaterina Smirnova)

Everybody has a list of go-to restaurants for important occasions: a big date, dinner with the boss, a catch-up with an old friend. UpStairs on the Square has been the spot for all those things since it opened 30 years ago (last November marked the 10th anniversary in its current location). Located smack in the middle of Harvard Square and full of tweedy Harvard types (during one recent dinner there, Bill Weld was two tables away), it’s the closest thing we have to a private dining club.

Despite its flamboyant décor—from the pale-pink-and-gold “Soirée Dining Room” to the fuchsia private dining room to the purple-and-green, Alice in Wonderland–like “Monday Club Bar”—UpStairs on the Square has remained a destination for business-people and wide-eyed college students alike.

Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Community Servings with Mary Catherine Deibel, who co-owns the restaurant with Deborah Hughes, and I got married there in 2004. So I may be biased when I give my unqualified recommendation of UpStairs as the place to celebrate a festive occasion, but I’ve always had qualified feelings about the food—which has never been the primary draw.

The restaurant has recently made strides to rectify this. Last year, Monday Club Bar chef Susan Regis took over the more-upscale Soirée Dining Room as well. After four recent dinners to test this unified effort, I found the execution to be uneven. But I also found dishes I liked better than any I could remember eating in the past.

Green Pizza“Green” pizza, Monday Club Bar, $13

The Monday Club Bar, which strikes an ideal balance between a laid-back bar and an ambitious grownup restaurant, is the more changed of the two. There’s a new “food bar,” a small open kitchen on one side with a few high seats for casual diners, and a new pizza oven. The dishes emerging from the kitchen and oven are straightforward and satisfying, and suit pretty much any mood—though not any budget. Despite the informal feel, main courses at the Monday Club Bar are priced like those at a high-end restaurant.

The new oven does justice to the laboriously made pizzas. Over the course of three days, the slightly oiled dough is gently folded to allow for slow fermentation. The result is a crust that is wonderfully blistered, bubbly, and resilient. The toppings transform these pies into full meals. The lobster pizzetta ($19), for instance, features a lobster-stock base thickened with cream, Parmesan, and ricotta salata, as well as nubs of crustacean meat. “Green” pizza ($13) is similarly rich, with soft Robiola cheese that melts into a white bed for spinach, the whole thing lightened by a sprinkling of lemony sorrel leaves. You won’t want anything else except for dessert.

Nor will you need more after cozy first courses like the tomato soup and grilled cheese ($11), which is perfect for a cold night: Though the cream-based soup is bland (albeit freshly made), the sandwich redefines grilled cheese—buttery slices of homemade brioche browned in a panini press, with just a good slab of Grafton cheddar in between. The Parmesan polpettini ($11), spheres of garlicky bread crumbs and egg in a “savory brodo,” live up to their name: bacon, pancetta, mushroom stems, and Parmesan can only explode into an umami bomb, and these do.

Main courses are reliable, particularly a cioppino ($23) that varies with seasonal fish and seafood, showcased in a thick broth based on lobster stock and red peppers, with a smear of creamy, saffron-y rouille. One entrée is exceptional: orange-and-pepper-cured duck ($27), the breast cut thin and, unusually, on the long side, which in other hands could toughen the slices. A rillette of duck-leg confit, usually the fatty standby that compensates for dry breast meat, plays a welcome supporting role to the breast.

The food in the swanky Soirée Dining Room, meanwhile, has the same out-of-time feel as ever, with fancified fare that could be from a dinner party in the late ’70s. Regis’s mastery of pasta is on display here, specifically in a first course of postage-stamp-size agnolotti filled with beet and ricotta ($14). The warm, shallow layer of melted butter on the plate is something you might find in, say, Parma—though with the un-Italian, and inspired, addition of butter-toasted pistachios.

CioppinoCioppino, Monday Club Bar, $23

Grilled quailGrilled quail with boudin blanc, Soirée Dining Room, $28

Another exemplary first course: sautéed Nantucket scallops ($17) that retain all the sweetness of the New England prize without a hint of rubberiness. Meyer-lemon purée and the fresh crunch of julienned celery-root rémoulade make this an elegant winter dish. A crackling salad ($13), though, is just baffling, featuring strings of frisée accented by fatty, puffy curls of deep-fried pork skin, with more salt from tough little lardons and more fat from overripe wedges of Twig Farm tomme.

The fish entrées are various degrees of misfire: underdone monkfish ($27), the tough, gelatinous skin slathered with a raw-tasting spice rub and the accompanying crisped squid tentacles marred by an odd herbal Chartreuse-based sauce; and flavorless red snapper ($28) in a dull Peruvian red-pepper sauce.

But strengths not apparent at the Monday Club Bar emerge here, especially in two roast poultry dishes: applewood-grilled quail ($28) that you’ll pick up to eat every last bite of (with Regis’s skillful boudin blanc worth the whole plate by itself); and herb-butter-stuffed roast chicken ($25) with moist, thankfully unbrined meat. Roasted quince and parsnips, buttery jus, and wood-grilled escarole make the chicken the most polished and complete main course. And the wood-grilled Archer Farms tenderloin ($34) will win over anyone who doubts that grass-fed beef can be as beefy and sweet as corn-fed: The wood grilling brings it to pink tenderness, and sweet cippolini onions cooked down in sherry are nicely traditional.

Then there are the desserts, which, under the supervision of pastry chef Maria Santos, are worth going to either dining room for. They’re unafraid to be unfussy and sweet, though they’re not cloying. Many date from the beginning, when Hughes developed recipes in her home kitchen, like the classic butterscotch pudding ($8) with triangles of pecan shortbread cookies stuffed with a chewy caramel. The “Zebra cake” ($8) is a high, fat wedge of old-fashioned chocolate layer cake with many thin layers of dulce de leche buttercream.

But the finest way to end any meal is with the “signature milk chocolate pecan turtles” (three for $8), which combine the best of New Orleans pralines with the best of a Whitman’s sampler: that is, pure brown sugar and butter, with the molasses overtones of muscovado sugar, rum, and fresh pecans. They’re at once gilt-edged indulgent and unpretentiously welcoming—the balance UpStairs continues to strike.

Parmesan polpettiniParmesan polpettini ($11), available at the Monday Club Bar.

Other Menu Highlights
Lobster pizzetta, $19, Butterscotch pudding, $8, and Zebra cake, $8, all Monday Club Bar.
Beet agnolotti, $14, Soirée Dining Room.

91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-864-1933,


Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.

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